While not squaring off directly, the defenses in this game are 1 and 2 in almost every statistical category, and the outcome is going to hinge upon the decision-making of each team's quarterback.
Roethlisberger gets the edge of experience, considering he's started six games against the Ravens to Flacco's one. But Flacco's receivers – Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton in particular – have been playing better than Roethlisberger's over the past few games. Flacco can also expect better protection overall. Neither team will run the ball effectively, but Baltimore will likely get the one or two extra first downs to put Flacco in a position to determine the outcome. Whichever passes commits fewer or any turnovers and makes more big plays will likely be the victor.
Harrison has torched the Ravens in his past three games against them (six sacks and five forced fumbles), and last week against Dallas, Pittsburgh's decision to line up Harrison and Woodley on the offensive left side led to 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. The Ravens can feature an unbalanced look, lining up Gaither and Anderson on the same side on running downs.
Baltimore has a solid offensive line, but they are stronger up the middle than on the edge. They will have to keep Harrison from getting to Flacco while keeping Woodley occupied. That opens up the rest of the Steelers defense to one-on-one match-ups on fire and corner blitzes. Ravens RB Willis McGahee is one of the more aggressive blocking backs in the game, and Baltimore will have to keep him back there on pass plays to help.
Expect the Steelers to employe 3-WR sets to spread the Ravens out, and force their nickel package onto the field. The Ravens are much deeper in their front seven than they are in their secondary, and the Steelers best chance to move the ball will be to gash the seam with Miller when a favorable match-up presents itself. This looks to be flooding Baltimore's weak side, and dragging Miller behind it, or running him down the seam in front of FS Ed Reed.
Leonhard is deceptively quick and noticeably strong. Considering the playmaking skills of Reed behind him, he can afford to play physical with Miller and get outstanding help over the top. Miller won't challenge Baltimore very far down the field, but in a game where third down conversions look to be as important as anything else, Miller can be the key to the Steelers success.
CB Ike Taylor vs. WR Derrick Mason
Mason's 65 catches are 30 percent of the team's total this season. His 13.5 yards per catch average is more of a concern for Pittsburgh. Mason is an excellent route runner with sticky hands. Passing for touchdowns isn't a top priority for the Ravens, but however they get into the end zone, it's rare when Mason isn't a big part of the scoring drive.
After two very successful match-ups against two of the best in NFL history – Randy Moss in Week 13 and Terrell Owens in Week 14 – Taylor is playing with a high level of confidence. He'll likely shadow Mason in base situations, and Mason's numbers have steadily improved against Pittsburgh since he joined the Ravens in 2005. He hasn't scored against the Steelers, but had eight catches for 137 yards in their first meeting.
|The Coolong Scorecard|
Neal Coolong writes a blog called "On The Black Side" and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.